The Cubs Bullpen Depth

There was once a school of thought that theorized if the Cubs ever won a World Series, we as a fanbase would be fundamentally changed and we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves if we couldn’t find reasons to panic about our favorite team.

It sounded like a plausible idea. Except for the fact that whoever wrote it clearly had never met a Cub fan in their lives. Panic is in our DNA. Because Todd Hundley is too.

A simple rule of thumb: when a team passes out World Series rings and then a month later makes front page news by ejecting a fan who says “woo,” things haven’t changed that much.

One of the main sources of sturm und drang with this year’s team has been the pitching staff. And understandably so. Jon Lester has mixed effective starts with other less satisfactory ones that have left him fuming over modern baseball players turning into “pansies.” Leaving us to wonder if the true problem might be that he has become a host  body for a Quantum Leap episode guest starring Old Hoss Radbourn.

Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks appear to have left three miles per hour in their other pants. John Lackey picked a strange time to hire Lewis Black as his mental skills coach. And there are many things in the world that have lasted longer than a Brett Anderson start. Such as this sentence.

It’s kind of a shame that the Cubs rotation is in its current state. Because it’s covered up one of the most pleasant developments of the new season. To wit: the 2017 Cubs currently possess one of the deepest and most effective bullpens in team history.

Consider the make-up of the relief corps. It starts with three upper echelon arms whose numbers are suppressed by abnormally high walk rates in a small sample size…

Mike Montgomery: The World Series hero is one of a few bullpen arms to walk too many batters (5.4 BB/9) but his usual skill in keeping the ball on the ground (53 percent groundball rate) has held opposing batters to a .209 TAv against.

Also, it bears repeating: the man is a WORLD SERIES HERO. Before Montgomery, the last two Cubs pitchers to record the final out of a Series were Mordecai Brown and Orval Overall. Which makes Montgomery the first Cub in that category whose name doesn’t sound like he’s playing baseball as part of his Rumspringa.

Pedro Strop: Right now, Strop sports an elevated 4.50 ERA due to a sky high 6.0 BB/9  and 1.5 HR/9 rates. However, if those stabilize closer to his career norms—and they should if his 3.33 DRA is any indication—more fans might notice that he’s putting up a closer-esque 12.0 K/9. Which means that there’s still a chance he could become the only pitcher in history to be removed from the game due to an escalating fist pump count.

Hector Rondon: The odds are pretty good that the only pitch you remember Rondon throwing this year was the catastrophic home run to Brett Gardner. Which is a shame because just about every other appearance he’d made up until that point had been very good.

Again, Rondon’s current BB/9 rate of 3.8 is too high. And completely out of character for him except if you listen to Joe Buck. And unless he’s saying “The Cubs win the World Series,” you really shouldn’t do that. Like his relief pitching brethren, though, Rondon is keeping his DRA in acceptable territory (3.45) thanks to a 10.0 K/9 and .206 TAv allowed.

The three holdovers have all performed admirably thus far. And their respective peripherals indicate that they could all potentially improve on that performance should their walk rates stabilize closer to career norms.

And then there are the standouts:

Koji Uehara:  In a year where very few Cubs have exceeded expectations thus far, Uehara and his usual stingy 1.02 WHIP have amassed a 3.68/2.42/3.27 ERA/FIP/DRA slashline. It’s the oldest adage in baseball…if you want to improve your pitching staff, the first thing you should do is sign a 42 year old guy who maxes out at 87 MPH.

If this trend keeps up, expect one of Theo’s big bullpen moves at the deadline to be the activation of Stephen Colbert.

Carl Edwards, Jr: There’s not much more I can say about Edwards’s brilliant performance thus far that hasn’t already been said in Bill Thompson’s profile from last week. Suffice it to say that the only number more impressive than CJ’s 2017 stats is his metabolism.

Wade Davis: 0.00/1.45/1.25 slashline. 0.67 WHIP. 11.6 K/9. .131 TAv Against.

My apologies to those of you who can no longer read this piece at work because your company’s firewall flagged it as statistical porn.

So yes, the Cubs bullpen is deep. So deep. The Cubs bullpen runs so deep, Ice Cube just wrote a lyric about it putting his girlfriend to sleep.

(I think that’s the closest I can come to making that reference and keeping this printable.)

But what does that mean for the 2017 Cubs in the long run? Assuming they can get their starters somewhat straightened out (Which I realize is like saying “Assuming Sammy Sosa discovers a button that lowers the volume…”), it gives Joe Maddon two pleasant options as the season wears on: the abilities to shorten games and keep his best arms rested.

As we’ve seen from recent incarnations in Kansas City and Cleveland, locking up innings 7-9 has proven to be quite a potent weapon both within the game itself and psychologically. With the relief corps set up the way it is, the Cubs currently possess multiple ways to do that.

Even with the starting pitchers performing less than optimally, this strength in the bullpen means the starters don’t have to revert to last year’s dominant performance in order for the team to be successful. All they have to be is good enough to hand the relievers a lead after six innings. Until the Cubs bring in reinforcements for the rotation, this appears to be the model going forward: hope for a quality start and then let all of these great relief arms lock it down.

Now that’s still a lot of innings for the bullpen to handle. Which is where the team’s depth becomes an advantage. Because the Cubs have so many quality arms who can make innings 7 through 9 disappear, Maddon doesn’t have to use the same three guys every day. While there is a drop-off from Edwards to Rondon or Strop, the latter two are certainly still skilled enough to trust with a late lead if CJ needs a day off.

This depth also enables Maddon to space out Uehara’s and Edwards’s appearances in order to maximize their effectiveness. For the most part, he’s showed a preference for giving each of them at least a day between each game to keep them as fresh as possible. The strengths provided by the other relief arms enable him to manage with both the long season and that day’s game in mind—a luxury few managers have.

All of this means that if the Cubs get back to resembling themselves and contend for the playoffs with this bullpen, we as fans can start to worry about other things. Like whether Dorothy Farrell stocked up on enough Jägermeister.

Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports

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